Another lost decade for cultural district

Editorial | Mary Ma 12 Aug 2020

Is the West Kowloon Cultural District project cursed? I wonder.

First announced by the government in 1998, the hub is still under construction 22 years later. Worse still, nobody seems able to state with confidence when it will be completed.

It is one of the very few projects ever to fail to live up to the efficiency for which Hong Kong is known.

The announcement by the cultural district authority chief executive Duncan Pescod to withdraw a "build, operate and transfer" tender exercise for the provision of an exhibition center, hotel, offices, retail, dining and entertainment facilities was disappointing.

It means the project will suffer further a delay.

Nonetheless, this decision to suspend the tender was understandable as the Covid-19 pandemic is the largest black swan to have hit us in recent memory. Nobody is spared as people are segregated between continents.

The project is meant to be a major attraction to boost tourism, offering travelers and locals cultural events of high quality, similar to London's West End district renowned for its rich mix of cultural landmarks from numerous theaters to extensive shopping and dining choices.

But with even artists and entrepreneurs in the West End struggling to survive the pandemic with scraps of government subsidies, who can blame Pescod for suspending construction of the hub within the West Kowloon Cultural District?

Even though I have long been critical of the slow speed with which the authority is taking the project forward, this time I cannot lay the blame on it.

But looking back, it has never been plain sailing for the huge project.

In 1996, the Hong Kong Tourism Board proposed that new venues be created for art exhibitions and cultural events. This was after surveying tourists, with many saying they would like to see more cultural activities in the SAR.

Tung Chee-hwa, the SAR's first chief executive, announced the establishment of a cultural district in West Kowloon in his 1998 policy address. Sadly, the progress has been painstakingly slow ever since, in total contrast to the kind of speed that defines Hong Kong.

In 2006, the masterplan was even overturned due to financial concerns, political criticisms and, most remarkably, a costly design to cover the district with a see-through canopy.

It was back to the policymaking table only after the plan was overhauled with a more pragmatic approach.

I have no doubt that, when it is finally completed, this mammoth cultural project will be remembered for the extreme length of time it will have taken to finish.

The latest delay raises an imminent question. Although the project started with a multi-billion-dollar capital injection by the government, its operational spendings are expected to be met by income from commercial activities - and the suspended exhibition and commercial hub forms the centerpiece of this.

Now that construction of the hub has been put on hold indefinitely, how will the financing of the West Kowloon Cultural District be affected? Will the cultural district authority follow the examples of Ocean Park and Cathay Pacific Airways and ask Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po to come to the rescue?

That's my major concern.

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